Home » Tobacco: Health Risks and Cigarette Alternatives

Tobacco: Health Risks and Cigarette Alternatives

by Melissa Bell
5 minutes read

Tobacco use in the world

Tobacco use is not uncommon in any region of the world; almost every continent has a sizeable population of tobacco users. Yet, such continued tobacco use seems to exist in defiance of what modern medical knowledge has deemed to be “The single most preventable cause of death in the world today.”1 Whether people are inspired to smoke because of cultural pressure, or because of simple curiosity, tobacco smoking remains a grave threat to human well-being.

According to the American Cancer Society, most smokers start their tobacco use as teenagers. Almost universally, these smokers mimicked the smoking habits of their friends or family; people who have friends or parents who smoke are far more likely to begin using tobacco themselves. Further, once they begin using tobacco, it becomes very difficult for them to stop smoking.2

Nicotine addiction

The foremost danger caused by smoking is nicotine addiction. In smoked tobacco, nicotine is absorbed through the bloodstream after entering the lungs. The chemical makeup of nicotine creates a reward sensation in the brain of the smoker, making them feel pleasurable alertness. Yet, as the nicotine use becomes routine, the user’s brain chemistry begins to become less sensitive to the reward sensation. Not only does the nicotine become less effective, the user’s brain is also less likely to feel similar reward sensations naturally. The user becomes stressed and is otherwise negatively affected in their cognitive functions.3 The addictive properties of nicotine cannot be understated; though an estimated half of all smokers in the United States attempted to stop using tobacco, few actually succeeded. According to the American Cancer Society,

“Few succeed without help. This is because smokers not only become physically dependent on nicotine. There’s also a strong emotional (psychological) dependence. Nicotine affects a smoker’s behavior, mood, and emotions. If a smoker uses tobacco to help manage unpleasant feelings and emotions, it can become a problem for some when they try to quit.” 4

The addictive nature of tobacco is intrinsically related to its other health risks. According to the US Surgeon General, repeated tobacco use directly causes many cancerous diseases. The carcinogenic properties of tobacco have been shown to directly cause lung cancer; smoking has been recorded as an evident cause of the disease since the 1960s.5 Further, cancers of the liver and colon have also been shown to be directly caused by smoking tobacco. There are some blood tests that can detect cancer years before symptoms appear. However, cancer is not the only risk associated with smoking. Tobacco smoke directly destroys lung tissue. Pregnant or expecting mothers are shown to disproportionately give birth to more children with certain deformities. Males who smoke have a higher risk of erectile dysfunction. Though most of these issues can be preemptively avoided by discontinuing tobacco use early, the addictive nicotine in the tobacco ensures that smokers are more likely to continue using the drug.6 Even those who quit smoking before they show health problems may be drastically harmed by cigarette use–a smoker’s genetic information can remain damaged by tobacco for up to thirty years after quitting. 7 It is safer to avoid cigarette use altogether.

Tobacco is related to many diseases

Though it has been well-established for decades that tobacco use is directly related to cancers and other diseases, an epidemic of cigarette alternatives–most of which still use tobacco–has convinced smokers to simply choose a different flavor of poison. Kreteks, cigarettes containing ground cloves and clove oil, are particularly popular with young smokers.8 According to the American Cancer society, “The false image of these products as clean, natural, and safer than regular cigarettes seems to attract some young people who might otherwise not start smoking.” Water pipes and hookahs–often falsely portrayed as a clean form of tobacco–are popular among social smokers. A mixture of tobacco and other flavors–the combination of which is known as shisha–is heated inside the hookah. The vapors from the shisha are inhaled through a flexible hose. These vapors are no healthier than normal tobacco smoke; some research indicates that exposure to shisha vapors may actually be more dangerous. Hookahs produce second-hand gases in addition to their tobacco smoke, potentially doubling the actual health risks associated with smoking. Not only do hookahs produce more second-hand tobacco smoke exposure than normal cigarette use, the ingredients used to make the shisha may also contain additional deadly chemicals. These alternatives are not truly alternative. All of the health risks remain the same; some may even be riskier.9

Despite the wealth of medical information related to the health risks surrounding tobacco smoke, many people remain adamant in their continued use of harmful tobacco products. Indeed, it does not seem that ignorance of the health risks is the main cause of tobacco’s continued widespread use. Many users actively search for what they believe to be healthier alternatives, which implies that they understand that there is a risk in smoking–they just do not fully understand the grim costs of that risk.



  1. WHO. WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008: The MPOWER package. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2008. (14)
  2. ACS. Why People Start Smoking and Why It’s Hard to Stop. (2015, November 13). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/why-people-start-using-tobacco.html#written_by on 2018, May 31.
  1. NIDA. Tobacco, Nicotine, and E-Cigarettes. (2018, January 5). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/tobacco-nicotine-e-cigarettes on 2018, May 31
  2. ACS, Why People Start Smoking…
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Health Consequences of Smoking–50 years of Progress. Office of the Surgeon General, (2014).
  4. NIDA, Tobacco, Nicotine, and E-Cigarettes…
  5. The Health Science Journal. Smoking permanently Damages Human DNA, Study Finds. (2016, September 15). Retrieved from https://www.thehealthsciencejournal.com/smoking-permanently-damages-human-dna-study-finds/ on 2018, May 31
  6. ACS. Is Any Type of Smoking Safe? (2018, March 6). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/is-any-type-of-smoking-safe.html on 2018, May 31.
  7. Ibid.

Related Articles